Luck Series-Finale Recap: That’s All She Rode

Photo: HBO
Episode Title
Episode 9

Can recappers call in sick, citing a broken heart? I thought about giving it a try. I didn’t want to have to write yet another recap of a show by my favorite TV dramatist, David Milch, the Dennis Potter of American cable, that had been cut short by a twist of fate. That this twist was one that Milch and co-producer Michael Mann probably should have seen coming doesn’t make it any less depressing. Bottom line: Luck might have been headed to the aesthetic winner’s circle.

It was a good and often infuriatingly original series that said things no other show said and showed them through fresh eyes. That it made things as hard as possible on the audience — burying its more important thematic and character beats deep in the dialogue and images, and forcing viewers to adjust to and even interpret the dialogue of its loquacious, often foreign-accented characters — doesn’t make its demise feel less foretold. Milch and Mann made clear in their interview with me that they come from a different generation, one that sees the sudden deaths of horses in racing or on film as an inevitable aspect of their being. That is, to put it mildly, not a popular opinion, and one that Milch and Mann’s network bosses didn’t share. There had been two deaths in production already; a third made the production and its patrons seem like a bunch of coldblooded horse-killers, and when it became clear that this kind of thing happens whenever racehorses are used for whatever reason, they had to pull the plug. HBO has kept many unpopular shows around because they generated subscriptions and awards and critical attention. Luck could have been another such series. And its gradual discovering of what, precisely, it was saying and how best to say it was but one of the many pleasures of watching it. But those horses — the very source of the show’s visual beauty as well as its plotlines and thematic richness — signed its cancellation notice. Death for deaths.

My love for this series was confirmed five minutes into its ninth and final episode, when Ace and Gus entered the lobby of Ace’s hotel and saw Ace’s grandson Brent (Jason Hoffman, Dustin’s real-life son) standing there. The episode is written by regular Mann collaborator Eric Roth (Ali) and directed by Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker), but it offers one of many demonstrations that this is as much a Mann show visually as it is a Milch show on the page. As Ace enters the lobby, the scene shifts into slow-motion as, from Ace’s point of view, the crowd seems to part like tall grass riven by a breeze, and he sees the young man standing there in a head-to-toe wide shot. There’s no ambient sound, only music. It’s what another filmmaker described as a Michael Mann Moment: sensual, subjective, lovely. We’re not going to see any more of those for a while, unless Mann and Milch decide to release the first episode of season two, which had just finished shooting when a third horse died and HBO canceled the show.

I’m going to sprint through the summary because it feels too much like an autopsy, or necropsy, or like the Deadwood finale all over again. The Foray Stable boys win big ("With that girl," Jerry says of Rosie riding their mount, the odds are maybe "twenty to one") but share a mournful awareness that their good fortune can’t last. Ace is delighted to see his grandson again, even considering their rocky history, but forbids him to visit the track because he fears for his safety. ("Maybe I’m secretly involved in the horse’s ownership," he says. "Maybe Gus is stepping out trying to make peace between us," Brent counters. Mike sends a hitman to kill Ace in a restaurant, and Gus reveals the badass we always knew was there and kills the bastard on the spot. (It’s an early candidate for the year’s most elegantly constructed action scene, a master class in how to build suspense through cuts.)

Ace’s distress over Brent reentering his life was presaged by his barely hidden guilt over Nathan Israel’s murder by Mike. In retrospect, it seems clear that Ace maybe saw something of his grandson in Nathan — that, assholish as the kid was, having him around filled a need, or maybe served as a way to work out his grandson problems in a coded way, like one-way secret therapy. In another parallel, or maybe mirroring subplot, Renzo’s mom (played by Mercedes Ruehl) shows up and starts mothering everyone, including him; she’s a great character who would have been a recurring face in the now-nonexistent season two. We see Rosie and Escalante forging what seems, in one amazing moment, to be an almost magical connection. Jo suffers a delayed miscarriage following last episode’s stable accident (the spooked rearing-up of the horse now seemingly a premonition of the horse death that canceled Luck). And Escalante proves, as if we ever had any doubt, that he’s not really the hateful prick he wants everyone to think he is. The way he crawls into bed with Jo is as beautiful a moment of un-self-conscious reaching-out as that scene in the season one Deadwood finale when alcoholic Doc Cochran dances with the palsied Jewel, and she tells him to say, "I’m as nimble as a forest creature." He repeats the sentence to her like a courtly flirtation, and she laughs and says, "No! Say it about yourself!"

Like the Deadwood finale — which David Milch now claims in an interview with my former colleague Alan Sepinwall that he wrote knowing it was a finale — this is a makeshift wrap-up that wraps up very little, yet still makes what preceded it feel almost like a complete statement, or at least complete enough that you can fill in some of the blanks and guess where the rest of it might have gone. (Poor Walter gets no closure on the Kentucky situation, though; a shame.) I don’t know if this series would have delivered on its full artistic potential, if it would have eventually found an audience commensurate with its originality, or if it would have even had a life beyond season two. But what a gloriously odd and sometimes haunting and magical ride it was, even though, in the end, the price of all that mystery proved too high.